The protests this month in Madison have incorporated much discussion of fairness — something that people on all sides claim to be seeking. The debate reminds me of a quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a British scholar best known for compiling A Dictionary of the English Language in the 1750s. Dr. Johnson was a staunch conservative in an era when conservatism meant defending aristocratic privilege, and he once disparaged an egalitarian movement in England by remarking, “Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.”
These words struck me as a very legitimate criticism. Why is it that those who stand up for fairness so often fixate on cutting down those who are better off, rather than lifting up all of society?
Make no mistake: Dr. Johnson was on the wrong side of political history. At the cusp of the American Revolution, for example, he wrote that “there can be no limited government” and that “since the Americans have made it necessary to subdue them, may they be subdued … When they are reduced to obedience, may that obedience be secured by stricter laws and stronger obligations!” This does not mean that all of Dr. Johnson’s observations lack merit. His comment about levellers seems enduringly and unfortunately relevant. It is, however, something we can change. When we work towards fairness, we should strive to level up, not to level down.
I grant that there are limits. We cannot all rise to be aristocrats, for there would then be no one left to serve our feasts or plow our fields. That dependence on servitude is where the truth becomes manifest: real unfairness comes not so much when some people have more than others, but rather when some people have more than others through coercion — when one class lives high by exploiting the labor of others.
People who legitimately seek fairness and equality will work, not to bring people down, but to raise people up by leveling the distribution of power, eliminating the privileges that give one class, race, or gender the power to exploit or to hold down the rest. That is the way to level up.
This post is long overdue. For years now, I’ve cringed at the constant appeals for “increased efficiency” made by managers, executives, politicians, researchers, journalists, teachers, engineers, activists, bosses, columnists, liberals, designers, coaches, conservatives, accountants, and radio talk show hosts. I think it is safe to say that we all agree: all of us want to make our businesses, our jobs, our governments, our schools, and our refrigerators more efficient. Efficiency is a good thing.
Efficiency, however, is a property of means, it is never an end, and it cannot be an ultimate goal. The thing that matters most is our choice of objects to efficiently accomplish. The business that efficiently returns value to shareholders is not necessarily the business that efficiently rewards good employees or that efficiently turns out efficient refrigerators. It is clear that machine guns and gas chambers are very efficient killing machines, but efficient murder isn’t a good thing at all.
When a merchant or a candidate or an employer tries to sell you on efficiency, it is a meaningless pitch unless you ascertain what sort of efficiency he or she means. Is the most efficient factory the one that makes widgets the most quickly, or the one that makes the strongest widgets? Is the most efficient government the one that does things for the least expense, or the one that does things for the most good? Is the most efficient plan for your boss the most efficient plan for you?
Let’s take a collective step back from this mad drive towards efficiency, and remind ourselves of our values, our goals, and what it is we’re trying so hard to accomplish. Using ends to justify means is bad enough. Don’t make the means into the end.
It’s official: 66 of 99 counties in Iowa lost people between 2000 and 2010, even while the overall state population increased by 4.1% owing to the growth of large cities and especially suburbs — continuing a decades-long trend. These details from Census 2010 were released today by the U.S. Census Bureau:
Iowa is the first state in the region for which detailed Census 2010 data has been released. The Census Bureau plans to release data on a rolling state-by-state basis to be completed by April 1. I’ll be sure to note the release of data for Wisconsin here at Acceity when that arrives. In the meantime, the Iowa returns offer something to think about.
Protests in Egypt continue to make headlines across the globe today, but not everyone is getting the same story. Take a look at this morning’s (8:00am CDT) top story from the web feeds of two leading news agencies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the AP in the United States, and the BBC in the United Kingdom.
Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt
“Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities.” (article)
Protesters dominate central Cairo
“Anti-government protesters take over the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as armed citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting.” (article)
These stories naturally each go on at length, but I’ve only copied the headline and summary broadcast by each organization’s RSS/Atom feed. Often, this is all that subscribers glance at anyway.
Although both reports are rooted in fact, the difference in emphasis is startling. The AP headline, “Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt,” stresses chaos, danger, and crime. The less sensational BBC headline, “Protesters dominate central Cairo,” stresses the scope of protest — a human right. You might say that the BBC emphasizes “civil” and the AP emphasizes “disobedience.”
The summaries show even more contrast. The AP raises the familiar American terror of “Muslim militants” freed by “gangs of armed men”, whereas the BBC recognizes “armed citizens’ groups.” These are not instances of using different terms to refer to the same thing; the focus is on different facts altogether. The facts are, however, related: the AP establishes that “police vanished from the streets,” stressing a descent into chaos, while the BBC confirms that “citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting,” stressing the people’s positive attempts to maintain order.
What I’ve described is only one isolated example of the disparate perspectives that can arise between two supposedly neutral and objective news agencies. The Internet’s deleterious effects on our attention spans might exaggerate these differences, for when news writers compress complicated stories into one-sentence blurbs for syndication, they’re likely to concentrate their biases too. Thankfully, the Internet also provides readers with mechanisms for dealing with bias: we can subscribe to a dozen feeds like this from around the world and gain diverse perspectives on every issue, we can click “read more” for the full story, and we can discuss the news on blogs or social networks. The Internet gives us more tools for making sense of the world than ever before — and more reason to use the tools it gives us.
It’s toasty at home today where the turkey roasts, but yesterday’s freezing rain left a gloss of ice over the outdoor world. The blades of frozen grass in the front lawn look deadly sharp. You wouldn’t want to see the roads. Safe travels to everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving!
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bipartisan group of 37 senators today announced support for the “Restoring Freedom in American Democracy Act,” introduced last week by senators Lewis Clark (R-Missouri) and Candy Cain (D-Nevada). If passed, the legislation would hand over responsibility for conducting federal elections to private companies. Supporters of the bill say it will help reduce government spending and ensure fairer, more efficient elections. Critics call the measure unconstitutional and fear it could disrupt voter rights.
“It’s time we end this socialist system of state-run elections and take government out of our God-given right to vote,” said Sen. Clark to cheers on Capitol Hill. “America needs to live up to its ideals of freedom and open its elections to the free market.”
The proposed bill would create a streamlined process for companies to secure authority to register voters, print ballots, operate polling places, and tabulate federal election results on a state-by-state basis. Officials hope competition between polling companies in each state will encourage greater efficiency on election day.
“We’ve all experienced long lines at the polls and late nights waiting for results on MSNBC,” explained Sen. Cain. “We can each remember the mess between Bush and Gore in Florida in 2000, or between Palin and Obama in 2012. The states just don’t do a very good job of running elections, and taxpayers will save money by allowing businesses to take over the polls.”
Wall Street welcomed the introduction of the bill, which coincided with the IPO of VoteRight, Inc. “Investors are very interested in this opportunity,” said Chuck Burgess, CEO of VoteRight. “Over 100 million people voted last year,” he added giddily, “and that could translate into more than a billion dollars in registration fees and ballot charges as voters enter the private polling market.”
Critics attacked the idea of for-profit polling companies, alleging that fees could prevent poor people and minorities from voting. That didn’t bother Joe Montgomery, a mechanic from Oklahoma City. “I don’t see why my tax dollars should go to print ballots for people who aren’t contributing to the system,” said Montgomery. “I’d rather pay up front to cast my vote than pay taxes that subsidize voters who don’t agree with me, politically.”
Others weren’t so sure. “What about rural voters?” asked Audrey Teasdale, a rancher in South Dakota. “It’ll never be profitable for businesses to set up polls out here. I’ll have to drive hours just to find an open polling place.”
Chuck Burgess tried to allay concerns. “VoteRight will bring new frontiers of customer convenience to the election market,” he said. “Consumers will be able to vote over the phone with a credit card, or buy as many ballots as they want in the mail. We can keep fees low by letting candidates bid for advertising space. Most people will be able to afford two or three votes each election day. That’s a better deal than they’re getting now, really.”
Americans in several cities are planning silent vigils to protest the legislation. Asked about their concerns, they said nothing.
Sen. Clark was unfazed by the opposition. “Real Americans want this reform, because they’ve seen that elections in our country have been a scam for too long.” Clark won election in Missouri in 2012 with over 60% of the popular vote. “I love America, but the current system is broken. I was shocked, absolutely horrified, when I first learned that when we vote for government officials, we trust the government itself to certify the results! It just doesn’t make sense. That kind of thing needs to be done by reliable, independent businesses operating in a competitive atmosphere.”
Clark’s remarks led at least one opponent, Bernard J. Wolfe, a 58 year old government worker in Kansas City who asked to remain anonymous, to call the senator “that good for nothing son of a bitching sell-out pig.” Most citizens, however, seem indifferent to the proposed changes.
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” said Kelly White, a student at Kent State University in Ohio. “Like no one I know votes anyway.”
A 2007 photograph shows a North Carolina memorial for U.S. casualties in the Iraq War. Since then, the American death toll has risen from 3883 to 4426, and classified death counts revealed by WikiLeaks put the total documented deaths from 2004 to 2009, including civilians, at 109,032.
Nearly 400,000 classified U.S. military documents made public today by WikiLeaks show that the United States lied about civilian death counts and made a policy of not investigating torture allegations during the Iraq War.
Major global newspapers including the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde had early access to the classified material. The British Bureau for Investigative Journalism has also created a detailed website about the Iraq War Logs.
Although the Pentagon previously denied that it kept records of civilian deaths, the classified war logs document the deaths of 66,081 Iraqi civilians from 2004 to 2009, out of a total 109,032. These numbers fit estimates by the Iraq Body Count project, which the New York Times reminds us is an organization that the “Bush administration repeatedly derided as unreliable and producing inflated numbers.” The Times also notes that as late as this summer, the Pentagon reported an official death count far lower than the numbers now revealed in the classified war logs.
The leaked documents also reveal that the U.S. made a policy of ignoring incidents of prisoner abuse and torture committed by Iraqi security forces. American Troops were required to report such abuse to their superiors, but military officials were not required to investigate reports of torture unless Americans had actually taken part. This led the U.S. to cover its eyes to over 1000 reports of abuse by the very Iraqi security forces that the U.S. has been backing up and training to take control of the country.
Incidents that the United States ignored included reports of “men and women blindfolded, beaten with cables, their genitals electrocuted, fingernails ripped out, sodomised with bottles and hoses” (IraqWarLogs.com) and “prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks” as well as “rape and even murder” (The Guardian). Despite knowledge of this widespread torture, the United States transfered at least 9,250 detainees to Iraqi supervision as late as 2010, despite a written 2008 campaign pledge that “Barack Obama will end the use torture without exception” (PolitiFact.com). The lack of real change from the Obama Administration is not surprising given Obama’s choice to maintain Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.
When Britain’s Bureau for Investigative Journalism sent a letter to the Pentagon asking for comment on the allegation that “the US Government handed over detainees to Iraqi authorities, knowing of concerns that torture was rife in Iraqi detention facilities,” the Pentagon replied only to say:
“We strongly condemn the unauthorised disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that ‘significant activities’ reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled in news stories, books and films and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.” (IraqWarLogs.com)
As an American citizen, I abhor that my country has tacitly allowed these sickening human rights violations to take place by under-reporting casualties and failing to investigate clear reports of torture and abuse. I cannot and will not give my support to any politician or official who enables this disgusting degradation of human life to continue.
Recent publicity suggests that the Pentagon is in the midst of a P.R. campaign to shape media coverage in advance of an imminently expected release of secret Iraq War documents from the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
Founded in 2006, Wikileaks became a household name in April 2010 when it released classified video footage of U.S. troops firing unprovoked at Reuters journalists and even children from an Apache helicopter in Iraq. In July, WikiLeaks followed by publishing the Afghan War Diary, a cache of tens of thousands of reports on military incidents during the War in Afghanistan.
U.S. Military representatives criticized WikiLeaks over these releases, declaring them a security risk and even suggesting that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” WikiLeaks and its supporters have countered that the Pentagon certainly has blood on its hands, and that the documents may even help save lives by prompting public discussion about bringing an end to America’s ongoing wars.
Now WikiLeaks is preparing to release a new and even larger set of documents pertaining to the Iraq War. The leak is widely expected this week and may come as early as today. Interestingly, the Pentagon appears to have engaged in a preemptive public relations campaign over the weekend to try and shape press coverage in advance of the release. If so, it’s a fascinating example example of government media management.